The UW's teacher preparation program is a militant immersion in social justice activism and identity politics that almost entirely neglects the study of pedagogy, intellectual inquiry, and the development of academic expertise.

University of Washington
© Michael Courtney Design
The University of Washington's Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP) is a twelve-month immersion in doctrinaire social justice activism and identity politics that awards a masters degree in teaching. Rather than an academic program centered around pedagogy and public policy, STEP is a bizarre political experiment, rife with juvenile requirements and light on academic rigor, in which the faculty quite consciously whips up a fraught emotional climate in order to underline its ideological message. As a consequence, the key components of teaching - pedagogy and the dissemination of academic knowledge - are fundamentally neglected. With no practical training or preparation, students begin their student-teaching practicums woefully unprepared in a sink or swim mentality focused mostly on emotional hypersensitivity. Even for the ardent social justice activist, the program's lack of practicality offers a value to its graduates little more than as a barrier to entering the teaching profession.

Organized according to the standard tenets of social justice theory, those in the graduate school class who do not identify as a straight white male are encouraged from the outset to present themselves as victims of oppression in the social hierarchy of the United States. And so a culture emerges rapidly in the 60-student cohort in which words and semantics fall under constant scrutiny, and ideas contrary to the ascendant ideology are rooted out in order to advance the high cause of social justice. Moreover, instead of imparting knowledge in pedagogy or working with graduate students to develop academic content and lesson-planning for high school courses, the faculty and leadership declare that their essential mission is to break the colonialism, misogyny and homophobia to which the important civic institutions and those at the top of the social hierarchy as they define it (white, male, straight) in American society are currently engaged. The logic being employed here is that an entire profession of teachers fluent in social justice will have the effect of reordering society itself by educating young people at all levels of K-12 and post-secondary education under this framework. This lofty ethos explains why the program focuses so heavily on training students in the discourse of far-left identity politics, and with such serious outcomes at stake why it demands the total intellectual acquiescence of those within it, with a consequently high drop-out rate and a chilling of frank discussion. When you consider that STEP's purpose is to prepare graduates to become novice high school teachers, such an acrimonious and psychologically manipulative environment in a public university is difficult to justify. I have decided to write this account with specific examples of the daily experience, in order to illustrate how social justice activism in the academy has a high opportunity cost, and how the program has become almost entirely untethered from its mission.

The first three of STEP's four quarters address social constructivism, postmodernism and identity politics through flimsy and subjective content. With a few notable exceptions, the content one might expect to study at graduate school is absent. Although the classes have names like "Teaching for Learning," "Creating Classrooms for All," "Teaching in Schools," and "Adolescent Psychology," it is appropriate to describe the vast majority of the content explored here as essentially ideological. These classes are difficult to distinguish from one another, each experienced as a variation on the theme of imploring students to interpret every organization and social structure through the paradigms of power and oppression via gender, race, and sexuality. Students are expected to demonstrate that the attributes of their personal identity (always reduced to race, sexuality and gender, and sometimes disability status) will shape their assumptions when they work as a classroom teacher. Practically speaking, the purpose is to have teachers acknowledge and embrace a broad range of behavioral norms and activities in the classroom and to explore a wider range of academic content than has traditionally been the case in American public schools. Above all, the program emphasizes that diversity and inclusion are the most important considerations in education, and that equity - in other words, equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity - ought to be the primary goal in public policy. A good illustration of this ideology in practice is manifest in The Case of Carla, a Science Education journal article that has gained something of canonical status. In their observation of a sixth-grade classroom, the authors of this study suggest that the behavioral patterns of white students were the cause of an African-American girl's relatively low academic performance, based on the de-privileging of African-American participatory and cultural norms, which were considered by her white peers to be disruptive and inefficient. In this article, enormous inferences on racial and gender discrimination in the practice of science education in the United States are drawn from the subjective observation of four elementary school students in one classroom over a few weeks. This is considered scholarship in faculties of education throughout North America. Similarly, in another class, students were asked to parse a transcript from the classroom of a white American teacher in which she dissuaded one of her Native American students who had claimed that water is biologically alive. Rather than analyzing her academic aims, how she came to develop her lesson plan, or her pedagogical techniques, the purpose of this session was to draw the conclusion that she was a microcosm of a greater trend wherein the dominant culture perpetuates oppression by casually rejecting the beliefs and knowledge of non-Western peoples.

Obviously, nobody would disagree that teachers should work to cultivate a catholic taste, that they should respond to the needs of their community, and that public schools continue to expose ugly chasms in American life, particularly in respect to the racial achievement gap. But STEP's relentless assumption is that group identity is a priori the most important determinant of success or failure in public education and in civic life, that all inequality can be attributed to overt discrimination, perpetrated primarily by straight white men and other counterrevolutionary elements, and these people as individuals (ie, not structure) represent the gravest barrier to equality in social life. Because it follows the postmodernist assumption that every social interaction should be analyzed subjectively and primarily through the dynamics of power and oppression, STEP demands the exploration of identity politics ad nauseam, for months on end, from the first week to the very last, in order to ensure that students conclude that the fundamental problem in education lies somewhere in faulty ideology and oppression from above. This focus comes at the cost of studying the art and craft of teaching, how to productively deal with difficult social problems on a small administrative scale and, still worse, via some truly lamentable teaching practices with no demonstrable efficacy or presence in the peer-reviewed literature. Most classes require very little if any academic work and they often resemble group therapy sessions with useless activities like personal journaling and vague west coast spiritualism thrown in for good measure. STEP is a travesty in its disservice to its own students and, moreover, because the program neglects the practice of teaching in favor of social criticism, it lets down the disadvantaged children it purports to serve by graduating an annual cohort of unskilled novices more likely to become overwhelmed in a profession already suffering from alarming rates of attrition that impacts high-needs schools above all.

One of the more peculiar requirements in STEP is called "Caucusing." The sixty-student cohort is divided into smaller caucuses based on race, sexuality, and gender. In the first quarter, students are segregated by race to discuss their place within social power and oppression. White students are required to demonstrate contrition for white privilege with examples of how whiteness, latent racism and America's institutionalized racism (this was not debatable) has benefited them personally. Essentially, in these classes white people are asked to sit around to free-associate and feel bad about race relations in America. Students of color are lumped together in a separate caucus out of solidarity. At the close of the first quarter, the white students and the students of color are united into one caucus and, convening in a large circle, we were asked to stand up to pat our thighs, rub our palms together and click our fingers - to create the sound of a thunderstorm, for some reason. Next, the students of color regaled the group with their painful experiences and excoriated the white students, making accusations of racism and subconscious marginalization. After tears and public apologies, the caucus finished with everyone being asked to hug one another. The consequences of this acrimony were realized in the following quarter, as the students of color instigated walk-outs in one class to protest the insensitive manner in which a white instructor and various white students had chosen to discuss the fatal police shooting of Charleena Lyles, a black woman who had been living close to the university campus, which led to further apologies, crying, hand-wringing, mandatory contrite letter-writing for white students, and a deep sense of foreboding each week as the class descended further into chaos and uncertainty from which it never recovered.

In the gender caucus, men were required to think about and discuss how women are disadvantaged in society in an unstructured series of loose conversations with zero relationship to secondary education. The appalling educational disparity between girls and boys that has emerged in recent decades was not discussed, presumably because this trend falls outside the paradigm of male privilege and female oppression. Again and again, for months on end, several professors addressed the concept of macroaggressions, especially those committed by straight white men, and always in a blatantly accusatory manner, as if graduate students in Seattle are likely to tell a female student that "You're smart, for a woman" or ask an Asian-American person, "But, where are you really from?" Eventually you learn that who you are is irrelevant because all that really matters is what you are in terms of your group identity. In STEP it is considered wholly appropriate to attribute to the individual the characteristics of group identity, a frightening concept indeed, which obviously has a real effect on how students conduct themselves towards one another and their future students, with rudeness and contempt towards white males a sign of virtue.

Another interesting and lengthy feature in STEP are 'Theater of the Oppressed' workshops. These mandatory theater performances stretch on for weeks, and in them white male students are asked to act out scenes in which they are cast as racist, homophobic or misogynistic characters. Students and instructors parse the performance and discuss the dynamics of identity borne out in each scene. Eventually, when I questioned the pedagogical rationale of the Theater of the Oppressed and the inordinate amount of time being spent on these workshops, I was told that it would help me as a classroom teacher to avoid the 'violence' shown in the drama scenes. When I pressed the TA to show me the evidence for this being an effective method, I was told that these workshops are considered valuable and that I should work through the discomfort. Obviously, no evidence for their efficacy was ever presented.

In one session, the instructor rejected all gender pronouns and required that we dance to Beyoncé songs while discussing instances of heteronormative behavior and homophobia. In another class early on in the second quarter we were required to bring in items that represented us - a task that proved out to be nothing more than Show & Tell, a prescient harbinger of the academic rigor to come. These tasks, which require precisely no academic work, would be almost comical if graduate school was tuition-free.

In other cases, the issue with STEP seems to be that it woefully misallocates resources and time, even if the content under consideration is reasonable in and of itself, which it occasionally is. For instance, one class focused on the historic discrimination of African-Americans in Seattle through practices like red-lining, wherein banks would refuse to grant mortgages to qualified black customers in certain neighborhoods, thereby inhibiting the accumulation of intergenerational wealth in black communities. This class went on for an entire quarter, with presumably no purpose other than to demonstrate reasons for the educational achievement gap and the related wealth divide between black and white populations in the United States. In general, the level of ignorance assumed by the faculty in a cohort of graduate school students is shocking - as if educated adults would have been hitherto unaware of the effect on contemporary society of the historic persecution of African-American people. However, openly disputing the academic program would have drawn social stigma and accusations of racism, which proves to be an 0ft-powerful incentive to slog through the content and its irrelevance to pedagogy or the development of academic content for young people.

In most classes, students are not free to sit wherever they like. The instructors tend to curate the groups with careful consideration of race, gender and sexuality, and students find out where they are to sit by locating their name on a Popsicle stick laid out on each desk. In one class, students in small groups monitor how much each person speaks, and for how long, in order to collect data on the participation rates of the various racial, gender or sexuality categories. Incredibly, several instructors' chosen teaching method is to put students in groups to create a poster using a sheet of butcher paper and colored Sharpies in reference to an issue raised in the week's readings. After several three-minute lectures, students then mill around the room with Post-It Notes to make anodyne comments. These kinds of ridiculous juvenile tasks and restrictions, put on by professors with little or no work experience outside K-12 education, make a mockery of graduate school, remind you of the worst teachers you had growing up, and in some perverse way teach you exactly how not to manage a classroom.

At the University of Washington, the social justice zeitgeist has transformed a vocational program into something unrecognizable to anyone unfamiliar with campus activism. To dispute the UW's received wisdom that a cohort of sixty graduate students should spend most of their year in graduate school discussing identity politics would be tantamount to opposing the dream of ending discrimination and inequality in American life. This is how a pervasive intellectual orthodoxy emerges and remains unchallenged. And this is why the social justice elements in STEP are each year ratcheted up by a small, noisy group of committed activists who intimidate their peers into agreement and silence. Indeed, the program prides itself on its innovative and extreme measures to incorporate social justice activism into the academy with an almost theological confidence that this panacea will finally resolve the problems in contemporary public education after decades of slim progress. In the final assessment, I think that anyone wishing to become a teacher is better off avoiding ed school altogether, and should instead find an alternative method of accreditation, such as that offered by WGU, and paired with easily-attainable reading materials develop expertise organically through field experience and trial and error and advice from veteran teachers who live and work in the real world. This is a terrible conclusion to come down to, because teaching is an immensely difficult undertaking and graduate school programs with a focus on pedagogy and academic excellence could be a vital resource for novices to transition into a successful teaching career. They might even attract more talent if they did so.

Translation: One cannot complain of having been deceived when he knew the fact and gave his consent